by Rob Ullrich | 4-minute read
“It’s hard to believe, but this used to be a nice place to live.”
My dad’s car crawled past sagging houses, half hidden behind waist-high weeds.
“There. That was our place. Over there, the Olsons and there, the Zimmermans.” He went on naming the whole block, narrating his old neighborhood legend. “See that addition on the house? We put that up in one day. Every guy on the block was there.”
I didn’t think much of those stories at the time. But my neighborhood experiences have been very different. I definitely don’t know the whole block. We haven’t built anything together. In fact, I only know many of our neighbors as the lady with the dog or the guy with the sunflowers or the house with the oversized election signs. Others I’ve never seen.
Many years after my dad moved out of his childhood home, he deliberately detoured down his old street. It still meant a lot to him. I confess that I don’t dream of my old dwelling places. I’ve had nice homes and I’m thankful for them. But they’ve been backgrounds for the business of life, or even hideaways.
Though I do believe that my dad and his neighbors experienced something valuable, the languishing neighborhood is a familiar lament. The 1960s, my dad’s neighborhood days, were turbulent times, yet racial tension, poverty, and Vietnam never surfaced in his stories. I’m sure those realities resonated deeply on the block. I’m also certain that if I did more digging, many of the neighborhood’s unsavory secrets would be unearthed. How far down the block do you need to go before you run into a Boo Radley, Ned Flanders or Steve Urkel? I’m sure the odd, the sanctimonious and the plain obnoxious spent many lonely nights while the rest barbecued, bowled and celebrated birthdays.
Even Jesus and the disciples had their neighborhood pariahs. Think of Zaccheus, the woman at the well, or a Roman Centurion. “Love your neighbor” suddenly carries extra weight. I often catch myself letting my dad’s stories shape my neighborly imagination instead of Jesus. But I’m always drawn to how Jesus created space for everyone. That’s both beautiful and unsettling for me as a Christian. I know I’m called to reach out.
I’m fortunate. My neighbors are easy to love. The day I moved into my house, my neighbor across the street shook my hand and then mowed my lawn for me. That weekend, my family was invited to a different neighbor’s backyard party. Others would smile, wave, or talk at the mailbox. What more was there to do? This was the best I’d had it.
An outdoor gathering
My wife and I decided that it was our turn to engage, to open up, to initiate. We stood on our driveway and decided to invite each house that we could see for coffee on the driveway. Bring your favorite mug, your kids, your friendly dog. We chose a cool, fall Saturday morning and started spreading the word. We knocked on each door and met many more neighbors. I met the guy with the sunflowers and the lady with the dog. They wanted to come. They wanted to bake coffee cake and bring doughnuts.
One by one, my driveway filled with my neighbors and my folding tables overflowed with desserts. The mood was buoyant as we met our block. People greeted me warmly and thanked us for the invitation. Several knew each other and caught up on family, health and other news. I met new neighbors, refilled many mugs, and somehow got the job of writing the alderman about the traffic issues. I even met people from First Free on the driveway!
As people headed home, my neighbors expressed how nice it was to get together. It felt right.
A mustard seed
We’ve lived at our home for three years now, and we’ve had a coffee-on-the-driveway each year. I’m not sure it will blot out blight, end crime in Rockford or bring out the best in every neighbor. But in the Lord’s hands, who knows what is possible? It’s a mustard seed, yeast in the dough, five loaves and two fish. It’s love for our neighbors and neighborhoods.
Over the hour or so we mingled with our mugs, I noticed a few curious cars crawl by slowly. I caught a glimpse of the drivers who blended a look of interest and confusion. What a strange sight for a Saturday morning. As I met eyes with one lady, I lifted the coffee pot, pointed to it, and thought, “This is a nice place to live.”